Rojava: Anarchism in Syria

You may think it obvious that Syria has experienced quite a degree of anarchy over the last five years throughout the Syrian Civil War and various international powers engaging with different sides of the conflict and different parts of the country. But here we’re not talking about the lazy media usage of the word anarchy; we’re talking about actual anarchism as a political philosophy.

Anarchy, in its simplest form, is the idea that there should exist no hierarchies and that the state should be dissolved. The most famous anarchist theorists include Peter Kropotkin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Emma Goldman.

Needless to say, there are no countries in the world which have been run by anarchists, but certain small parts, at one time or another, have been run by anarchists.

Anarchism influenced the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Limerick Soviet of 1919 in Ireland. It was popular in Russia and was a leading part of the Kronstadt Uprising. It played a large part in the Spanish Civil War and even popped up as Mao’s Communists in China flirted with anarchism during the Cultural Revolution in the Shanghai Commune.

Today, parts of North and East Syria have become autonomous and run on anarchist principles, these parts of the country are collectively known as Rojava.

What is Rojava?

Rojava, or going by its official title the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, is a collection of self-governing regions in north and east Syria. This makes up one of the fronts in the Syrian Civil War. Its military forces are called the Syrian Democratic Forces and are mostly made up of Kurdish and other ethnic minorities within Syria.

Rojava is officially secular, and its political make-up consists of ideals of direct democracy and libertarian socialism, decentralisation and gender equality, multi-religion and multi-ethnic organisations and with a focus on environmental sustainability. In a word, all key tenets of anarchism.

Parts of Rojava are basically a Syrian Kurdistan, bordered by or not far from Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish areas. Within Syria it includes parts of Aleppo and Raqqa amongst other districts. The region has been opposed to efforts of Arabisation by the central government for far longer than the civil war has raged.

Rojava’s place in the Syrian Civil War

There were myriad groups that formed or crystalised in this part of Syria to fight against ISIS, or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), including the People’s Protection Units (YPG), including its female wing the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). As was popularly covered in the international news, the Kurdish units in Syria, allied with the USA, played a key role in defeating ISIL.

Another regional player, Turkey, was in the quandary of opposing ISIL but completely against Kurdish unity and success on the battlefield as a precursor to state formation. At times, the YPG found themselves under attack by Turkey, a NATO country, even as a US ally in the region.

In October 2019, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces from northeastern Syria, leaving the Kurds open to attack from Turkish-backed forces, who could not countenance a Kurdish ‘buffer zone’ on Turkey’s borders.

These actions have provoked demonstrations in support of Rojava amongst the Kurdish communities, anarchists and others in Berlin and other major western capitals.

How is Rojava anarchist?

In this military and political environment however, Rojava has developed its own form of anarchist rule. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), outlawed in Turkey of course, has experienced a turn to anarchism, and this has influenced the official Charter of the Social Contract, the means by which the area is governed.

In these areas for example, there is a policy of co-governance whereby at each level of authority there is both a male and female leadership position, and there is equal representation for all ethnic and religious peoples. It’s capital lies in Ayn Issa.

This has also influenced education in the area, with the formerly Arabic-dominated schools making way for multi-linguistic schools. In 2016 the University of Rojava was also founded. The recently deceased American anarchist anthropologist David Graeber visited the university and wrote positively about Rojava.

Needless to say, the constitution is in stark conflict with the Syrian government constitution and law, but at present Rojava is de facto autonomous and its own constitution is primary if there is any conflict with the Syrian one, this is especially the case for example when it comes to women’s rights.

Economically speaking, Rojava runs along a mixed line, with private enterprises existing alongside worker cooperatives and the autonomous administration. There are collective fams working in agriculture and the general aim is for self-sufficiency for the region.

Rojava declared its autonomy on the 9th of January 2014, and still exists to this day, although media reports before covid-19 hit are starting to ask is this the end of Rojava?

Can I visit Rojava?

At present YPT is running at least 3 trips a year to Syria. However, these tours stay within government-held territory in the country. Because of the conflict it is still too dangerous to travel to Rojava on a group. This year tours have been wiped out by covid-19, but in 2021 we hope to get back to the country and if an opportunity arises we will certainly be exploring options.

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